The closer volunteers come to ending their service, the more often they feel figurative loaded guns pointed to their heads. By figurative, I mean questions or statements that make them feel both intimidated and overwhelmed. I’m going to touch on a few of them and I hope you find it enlightening.
Telling a volunteer, “I bet you’re glad to be coming home” gives the connotation that America is better. While I do miss my family and am excited to be moving forward in my life, I am heartbroken about leaving Nicaragua. It’s bittersweet, not just sweet, and you’d do best to acknowledge the loss that comes with leaving the country as much as going back to your own country ESPECIALLY given this current political climate. There are great things about living in the states, but believing that life in the states is better is false. Try, “Are you excited to be coming home?” By making it a question, you’re allowing the volunteers to tell you the fullness of their emotion and you’re no longer assuming how they feel.
“Ready to enter back into real life?” Sigh. This is terribly unfortunate because every day of my life as a volunteer has been real. My real life has been filled with regular things like yours. Sure, I hear roosters in the morning, go to a different kind of work, don’t have running water and drink mango juice made from a mango my mom pulled from the tree in the back, BUT that is my real life. Try, “Are you ready to adjust back to your life in the states?” More than likely no, the volunteers are not ready, but the question is less aggressive and more open to the life differences.
“What are you doing after Peace Corps?” Jesus. This is the bazooka of loaded guns. This is SO hard to answer. There are so many options. PCVs can extend their service, become PCVLs (Peace Corps Volunteer Leaders), go to grad school, get jobs, continue living in Nicaragua, go backpacking and travel the world some more OR they just don’t know! Most times, all those things are swirling around in their minds and they’re waiting to hear back from someone to confirm what exactly they can do. Do NOT ask them this. It’s an additional head trip that makes them feel both anxiety for having to give you an answer and shame if they don’t have a good enough answer for you. Try, “What are you thinking about doing after the Peace Corps?” This allows the room to share thoughts, not concrete, definitive plans with the baggage of disappointment or shame if those plans don’t work out.
“I know you’re ready to come back.” You don’t know anything! You’re assuming a lot and none of that matters because whether I’m ready or not, I have to do something. I have to choose between extending my service and seeing all the people I’ve come in with leave or going back home, risking giving up the only job I’ve ever loved and fighting to find something similar or continuing to travel. But to assume I’m ready is a farce. I’m not ready for anything, but I must move forward.
“Do you think you made a difference in your service?” Woah. That’s getting really deep and really fast. I like to think I’ve made a difference. I like to think I haven’t wasted two years not making a difference, but that word is a matter of perspective. I don’t know what you mean. Do you mean a difference in that I’ve taught students what it means to be an entrepreneur? Then yes. If you mean difference as in building my community a bank or a well, then no. Try, “What are some things you’re proud of in your service?” That’s much easier to ask. Although it’s difficult to choose which one thing I am most proud of, I can certainly think of a few things that have moved me, changed my mind and burned bright in my memory. I’m proud I haven’t quit. I’m proud of my Spanish level improving. I’m proud of the impact I’ve made in my community and in my Nicaraguan home.
“Why does it matter if you’re ___ (Black, LGBT, Hispanic/LatinX, etc.)? That shouldn’t affect your work.” You’re kidding right? How could it not? The Peace Corps is so personal, how could my identity not affect my service? Try, “How did being [insert identity] affect your service?” You’ll be surprised what you hear.
“Are you two going to continue dating?” Whether you’re asking about a PCV and a local or a PCV with another PCV, you’re rude. This is not appropriate. No. No. No. No. Even if they have the answer to that question, they don’t have to give that answer to you. Try asking what their separate plans are and then make your own inference from that.
“Going to move back in with your parents?” Again, Rude! Plus, see statement three. We don’t know! Nothing is certain right now so don’t make it worse by asking this. Try, “How did Peace Corps help you make future decisions?” That way you can learn what few things I am clear on.
“What was your service like?” This is impossible and puts more stress than necessary on the volunteers. How can they tell you their life story in Peace Corps in five minutes? How can you condense two years into a quick sound bite? I’ll tell you how–you can’t. Try asking about a specific moment or saying, “When can we meet for coffee to catch up? I’d like to hear about your experience.” This is much better because it allows the PCVs to think and fully process what they want to say and actually have time to give you an in-depth answer, not a five-minute synopsis.
There are a lot of things you just can’t understand unless you’ve served as a volunteer, but, hopefully, this post gives you some guidance. COS is stressful enough. Don’t add to that. Just be there and support the volunteer in your life as best as you can. Less questions, more support.